As a young Buddhist monk in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, during the 1960s, Kompha Seth studied the Brahmi alphabet and Magadhi—a root language of modern Khmer—which had been preserved and passed down for generations. Today, he's one of only a few Cambodians in the world who understands these dialects and their links to modern Khmer.
In 1971, Cambodia was in the midst of a civil war between the Communist Party of Kampuchea, more commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, and the government forces of Cambodia. Seth joined the Cambodian army; he was in southern Thailand at a military-training facility when Khmer Rouge insurgents captured Phnom Penh in 1975. He had a crucial decision to make: He could return to Cambodia to try to protect his family, including his wife and two sons, and risk execution; or he could flee to the United States as a refugee and leave behind everyone and everything he knew, yet hold out hope that his loved ones would survive.
Seth was fortunate enough to quickly obtain a sponsorship from Catholic Charities, and in 1975 he arrived at Camp Pendleton in California with just one bag of luggage, then moved to Downers Grove three months afterward. He'd later learn that 24 of the 25 members of his family were killed by the Khmer Rouge (his sister-in-law survived). Seth does not know for sure how they all died. His sister-in-law told him that some expired from starvation and diseases due to Khmer Rouge policies (such as closing hospitals and rationing food), while others were executed.
"Cambodians lost so much in the genocide," says Seth, now 74. "They lost their soul."
In 1976, Seth cofounded the Cambodian Association of Illinois, where he serves as executive director. Under his guidance, the association is moving away from its early mission of providing refugee-adjustment services—job placement, English-language instruction—to focus on renewing and teaching a culture that was nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
This year, CAI's National Cambodian Heritage Museum will mount two exhibits in an effort to both preserve the stories of Cambodian refugees and envision the future of both native Cambodians and Cambodian-Americans. On June 5, the Documentation Center of Cambodia will bring to the museum the traveling show "The Forced Transfer," which draws on DC-Cam's vast archives of articles related to the Khmer Rouge atrocities. At some point in the late summer or early fall, the museum will host photographer Pete Pins's "Migration of Memory," which portrays members of the Cambodian diaspora alongside pregenocide photographs and mementos.
On a recent Wednesday morning at Seth's CAI office in Lincoln Square, it was clear that the horrors of the Cambodian genocide still weigh heavily on him. But as CAI celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, his mind is on what lies ahead.
"To survive," Seth says, "we need to remember the past and then transmit it to the younger generation."